Thursday, May 19, 2011

Is the Marquis Theatre Cursed?

Theatre people are a superstitious bunch, with rituals, ceremonies and a few quirks that seem to keep the business grounded and human (if not just a tad strange).  You've probably heard of the "bad lucks": whistling backstage or saying the "M" word instead of "that Scottish play" are definite no-nos, sending the most normally rational people into a tizzy of trying to undo the bad luck.  You might have seen a stage hand roll out that lonely bare bulb on a pole at the end of every performance, once the stage has been cleared - that would be the ghostlight.  Depending on who you talk to, it is either to ward off ghosts that inhabit the space or to help them to "see."

One of the nicer rituals that bless a show is the Gypsy Robe ceremony.  This is where a robe is passed from one musical to the next one to open.  Each show decorates a panel to represent their production, then that show's recipient brings it to the next show on its opening night.  At that time, a new recipient is named: the chorus member who has the most Broadway credits gets the honor.  The entire company assembles on the stage, and the chosen gypsy runs around the circle three times counterclockwise, allowing every company member to touch the robe.  Then, before curtain, that gypsy member visits each dressing room and castmate, thereby blessing the stage and its players.  After it is decorated, the gypsy takes the robe to the next opening of a Broadway musical and so on.

Those same gypsies also have a darker belief: that some theatres are cursed when they go long periods without a hit show.  I know a couple of dancers who refuse to even audition on the stage at one of these theatres without doing some sort of "cleansing ritual" to keep from being injured, ruin their career or worse.  I am not privy to said ritual, but I will tell you that both of the dancers I know who very much believe in this "curse" are otherwise very rational, sane people.  But ask them about this and the conversation turns very serious, as they spout off lists of dancers who have been injured at these theatres.

The Marquis' first musical tenant, Me and My Girl

What is interesting to me is that this curse comes and goes.  A great example of an "un-cursed" theatre is the Lunt-Fontanne.  For years, in the late 70's through the mid-90's, that theatre couldn't keep a show for the most part.  Oh, it had its occasional hit - Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan was one - but never two in a row.  That all changed with, of all things, TitanicTalk about a curse!  That show had more trouble than our web-slinger on 42nd Street.  Heck, the boat didn't sink at the first preview!  But then, fortune smiled, and the show became a hit, winning several Tonys and a long run.  Of course, the place needed hit number two, and it got it in the transfer of Beauty and the Beast from the Palace.  The next two tenants were/are not critically acclaimed, but have each managed more than a year: The Little Mermaid and The Addams Family.  Curse gone!

Talk about superstitious, though... don't even mention the Belasco Theatre to my friends!  That one has the double whammy: the curse PLUS the ghost of David Belasco.  But the one theatre that seems to have the most trouble is the Marquis Theatre.  And that may just have to do with bad karma and plain old ill-will.  The fact that the place even exists riles some theatre people, and it was only built as a compromise.  Back in the late 70's-early 80's several theatres were torn down on 45th and 46th Streets to make way for the huge Marriott Hotel which now stands there.  There were protests, threats, marches... you name it, they tried it... anything to stop this travesty.  But the truth is, that was a bad time for Broadway and Times Square.  Crime was high, the economy was bad and these places stayed empty more often than not.  And the builders promised a brand new state of the art Broadway house right in the hotel.  Thus, the Marquis was born - a difficult birth - but there it is.

The Broadway marquee for the Marquis

Things started off with a bang!  Even the very first tenant, a one-woman special with Shirley Bassey drew crowds for her limited run.  But the first Broadway show to open there was a blockbuster by every definition.  The British import Me and My Girl opened in 1986, against such competition as Starlight Express and a little show called Les Miserables, and it was a huge hit.  The anti- Les Miz, Me and My Girl was an old musical from the 30's with huge sets, brilliant staging and a score you could whistle as you left the place.  And it was a RIOT of laughs. The show was nominated for 13 Tonys, won 3 and ran 1,420 performances without changing theatres.  Seemed the Marquis Theatre was blessed, after all.

Two long running tenants:
(Top) The Drowsy Chaperone
(Bottom) Victor/Victoria

Well, 25 years later, it seems not to be the case.  Some statistics:
  • Since it opened, there have been 17 open-run musicals, 5 limited engagements, and 7 special theatrical events.
  • Altogether, the shows that have played the Marquis have earned 72 Tony nominations, but have won only 19 awards.
  • Those 17 open-run musicals have played a combines total of 6,530 performances, an average of 384 performances per show.
  • Only six productions have run a year or more, and not even all of them made their investment back:
  1. Me and My Girl (1986 - 1989) 1,420 performances; 13 Tony nominations, 3 wins.
  2. Damn Yankees (1994 - 1995) 533 performances;  4 Tony nominations, 1 win.
  3. Victor/Victoria (1995 -1997) 738 performances; 1 Tony nomination.
  4. Annie Get Your Gun (1999-2001) 1,045 performances; 3 Tony nominations, 2 wins.
  5. Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002-2004) 903 performances; 11 Tony nominations, 6 wins.
  6. The Drowsy Chaperone (2006 - 2007) 674 performances; 13 Tony nominations, 5 wins.

The less fortunate:
(Top to Bottom) Shogun: The Musical, The Capeman, Wonderland

  • The other 11 productions include some of Broadway's most notorious flops:
Shogun: The Musical, Nick and Nora, The Goodbye Girl, The Woman in White, The Capeman
  • Since the last "hit" tenant, The Drowsy Chaperone, the following open-run musicals have opened and closed there - a who's who of flops:
Cry-Baby, 9 to 5, Come Fly Away and Wonderland.  (In between, two limited runs of Irving Berlin's White Christmas played, the first a giant hit, the second run not so much.)

Adding even more credence to the notion that the place is cursed is the fact that only once has the show housed two hits back-to-back:  Annie Get Your Gun and Thoroughly Modern Millie.  It was 4 years (and 4 open-run shows) between long-runners Me and My Girl and Damn Yankees.  And since The Drowsy Chaperone closed on December 30, 2007, there has not been a single hit show playing the Marquis.  Talk about feast or famine!

So, it would seem that the Marquis Theatre has a "curse" these days.  It could all turn around, but we won't know for years.  3 big hits in a row take a long time.  Just ask David Belasco's ghost.

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